Volunteers, Six-Days Plus. (History)

By Zimmerman, Michael A. | Midstream, May-June 2003 | Go to article overview

Volunteers, Six-Days Plus. (History)


Zimmerman, Michael A., Midstream


Mountains melted before Ha-Shem--as did Sinai--before Ha-Shem, the God of Israel.

--Judges 5:5

My first image of Sinai was on a starkly bright day in June 1967. Wrecked equipment of the Egyptian regiment that failed to block the Sinai coastal road was still in place, desolate on the ridge just beyond the site where the lovely Israeli town of Yamit arose a few years later. Dug-in tanks--angular T-34s, round-turreted T-54s and 55s. Trenches, pillboxes, antitank guns by the dozen, wire entanglements, minefields. Virtually all the arms were Soviet.

Somehow, Israeli battalions in General Tal's division had blasted, flanked, and charged their way through. Still hanging in the hot air was the sickly-sweet smell of rotting bodies. Burial teams had not yet completed their work. Near El Arish we heard the barking of scavenger dogs, to be shot on sight.

The yellow-white buildings of a deserted United Nations camp stood outside El Arish, arid against the empty landscape near the Mediterranean coast. A large English sign painted in black on one structure faced the gate to the road: Do Not Shoot--We Are In--U.N. The building was riddled with bullet holes. Handwriting on the wall. The United Nations had facilitated Egypt's escalation to the 1967 war by evacuating its units from Sinai during the crisis before the fighting started.

A dozen or so Egyptian armored vehicles already hauled in by ordnance teams sat at an intersection nearby. They would be trucked to Israel as war booty, studied and reused or cannibalized for parts. Odometers on some Soviet-supplied vehicles showed barely one hundred kilometers.

At the abandoned town of Kantara along the Suez Canal, some hundred miles west along Sinai's north coastal road, a tattered blue-and-white Israeli flag flew above shattered buildings across the still waterway from a lone Egyptian banner. I recalled the BBC television broadcasts in London during the worrisome days of late May '67, just weeks before. Frenzied Egyptian mobs in war hysteria waved black skull-and-crossbones death flags, when Arab military escalation and genocidal wrath sorely threatened Israel. The small Jewish state stood alone then. The war lasted six days. Israel won on three fronts. A victory and a deliverance.

A week later when I scouted Kantara again, a delta-winged MIG-21 fighter buzzed the area. My buddy and I were flat on the shoulder of the road by the second low-level pass. The MIG was designed as an interceptor, but here it was down on the deck, threatening a strafing run! The Russian plane's engine-roar was suddenly overlapped by another growling roar as a Mirage gave chase. The Israeli Air Force was still French-equipped that year.

An Israeli colonel and I drove all over northern Sinai inventorying the armor and artillery that littered the landscape. We marked detailed maps with our notes. I had been assigned as leader of a group of civilian volunteers that would do the work of recovering the equipment. He set the priorities. We organized a few days of training designed to teach the volunteers to drive a variety of military vehicles and handle winches and towing equipment. We formed them into teams and directed the salvage and evacuation of the equipment. The collection point was El Arish.

The Israeli officer, short and trim, said he had studied the battle tactics and campaigns of Guderian, Rommel, and Patton, and the writings of Liddell Hart.

"Do you have special feelings about the two Germans?" I asked.

"Those two? Brilliant soldiers. Professional," he answered simply. "The Holocaust was something else. Murder!"

"You think they didn't know? If they did, they were accomplices."

"They savored the chance to practice, stretch their professional talents, and ignored the civilian slaughter, if they knew," he said.

"A deadly variety of careerism," I said.

He nodded.

The volunteers in my group hailed from the corners of the globe--the United States, Canada, England, Australia, France, Brazil, and Argentina.

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